Trust me, the food in Bologna will blow your mind, and I’m not saying it just ’cause I’m a local! This complete guide will show you what to eat in Bologna and the traditional foods you simply can’t miss.
Every region of Italy has played an important role in developing and promoting Italian cuisine, but Bologna has always been particularly revered by Italians and foreigners alike for its food culture. In fact, Bologna is often considered the food capital of Italy!
Attempting to write a single article that summarizes each culinary specialty to be found in Bologna and Emilia Romagna is an impossible feat, so this list is going to focus on some of the region’s most popular contributions to Italian cuisine and to the best Bologna food specialties. In other words, the dishes and ingredients you are most likely to be interrogated about if you mention visiting the region, with a few extras thrown in so you can show off for your friends (wink wink).
If instead you’re looking for the best restaurants in Bologna and some locals’ tips on where to eat in Bologna, check out my other article:
25 Best Bologna Restaurants: The Ultimate Guide by a Local
Many of you are probably familiar with the lunchmeat staple commonly referred to as Baloney, also spelled Bologna. What most people do not realize, is that it is originally based on Bologna’s own “Mortadella”. At first taste, you will notice that they have some spices in common, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
In its truest form, traditional Mortadella is prepared in massive logs that can weigh as much as 300 kilos. It is best-enjoyed cut into delicate, paper-thin slices that show off its characteristic pink and white with slivers of green pistachios.
Prosciutto Crudo is a cured ham served uncooked in thin slices. It has a distinct salty flavor that pairs surprisingly well with melon (a popular appetizer) and is not to be confused with “Prosciutto Cotto”, which is salted cooked ham.
Cotoletta alla Bolognese
Of all the Bologna foods you need to try, this one must be the heaviest of all, but trust me, it’s totally worth skipping your diet. The standard Cotoletta (a fried cutlet) is already a pretty decadent dish, but apparently it isn’t rich enough for the Bolognese. Add a large slice of prosciutto Cotto and a cheesy cream sauce, and then you will have a Cotoletta Bolognese. This dish is usually big enough to share with a friend, especially if you just finished eating a big plate of pasta.
➤ Where to try it: Trattoria Amedeo (Via Saragozza, 88)
Nothing says Italy quite like a nice big wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano. This hard cheese is closely regulated to achieve a characteristic salty flavor and granular texture. In order to be sold with the official Parmigiano Reggiano seal of approval, it must be produced according to strict regulations and be aged at least 12 months.
Most Italians prefer 24-month cheese for cooking with, while 36 months gives the cheese a more robust flavor that is perfect to enjoy on its own or drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Unless you’re a cheese connoisseur, there’s no real need to purchase anything over 36 months.
As the cheese ages, it is basically becoming more dehydrated and the tough salty rind just gets thicker and thicker. Some shops do offer super-aged options, even 168 months, but at that point you’re basically just eating a thick slice of rind.
This semi-hard cheese is often overlooked in favor of its more famous cousin, Parmigiano Reggiano. In fact, the popular soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” found itself on the wrong end of a lawsuit when a character implied that Grana Padano was an inferior cheese masquerading as Parmigiano. Understandably, Italians were not pleased with this description.
While the two cheeses look nearly identical at first glance, Grana Padano has a lower fat content that allows it to mature more quickly with a smoother, more subtle flavor that goes well with most Italian dishes. Different from Parmigiano Reggiano? Yes. Inferior? Absolutely not!
I do love my Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano, but my heart actually belongs to soft cheeses and squacquerone is at the top of the list. This gooey cheese has a distinctly tangy flavor and can be spread on pretty much anything… or, if you’re like me, eaten straight from the container with a spoon.
This circular bread is perfect for making little sandwiches. In fact, it is typically accompanied by a platter of mixed meats and cheeses for that very purpose. The name “Tigella” comes from the special tiles that were once used for baking the bread. These tiles were traditionally made of terracotta and could be personalized with a family emblem that would then be baked directly into the bread.
➤ Where to try it: Zerocinquantino (Via Pescherie Vecchie, 3/e)
Gnocco fritto (also called Crescentina)
However much we may wish it wasn’t true, fried food tastes amazing, and these airy golden pillows of goodness are the only proof you need. This fry bread is served with meat and cheese platters, often also accompanied by Tigelle, and it is notoriously easy to eat way too many of them, especially if wine is involved.
➤ Where to try it: Chiosco Ai Pini (Via Emilia Ponente, 351)
This flatbread is the perfect way to switch things up at lunch. The lard based dough is stretched into a disc and traditionally cooked on terracotta, much like the Tigella though considerably larger. When folded in half, it creates the perfect pocket for unlimited sandwich fillings such as Prosciutto Crudo, arugula, and squacquerone. Yum!
This Emilia Romagna food is best tried around the area of Rimini right on the beach, but if you’re not heading there, no worries, you can find great piadina in Bologna as well.
➤ Where to try it: Panini Di Miro (Piazza Aldrovandi, 5) and Tanimodi piada e cassoni (Via Ugo Bassi, 10/R)
If one dish can be chosen to represent Bologna, it is definitely a plate of handmade tortellini. This irritates our neighbors over in Modena to no end, who insist that they are actually the inventors of tortellini.
In any case, the most popular legend says that after a busy day of watching the Bolognesi and Modenesi battle each other, the goddess Venus decided to rest at an inn in the town of Castelfranco Emilia. The innkeeper was so stunned by her beauty he couldn’t resist spying on her as she prepared for bed. Inspired, he then rushed to the kitchen to shape a piece of pasta in honor of the one body part he had managed to glimpse through the keyhole: her bellybutton.
Illicit bellybutton gazing aside, this little meat-filled pasta is highly prized for its intricate folds and time-consuming production. Machine-made versions are available in supermarkets, but the much smaller handmade product is far more prized. They are traditionally served in broth, but it has also become very popular to toss them in a rich cream sauce. In any case, you simply can’t leave without trying this Bologna famous food.
➤ Where to try it: Sfoglia Rina (Via Castiglione, 5/b)
This is essentially tortellini’s big brother: same shape, different size. While petit tortellini are strictly meant for meat filling, the tortelloni’s larger size means that there is plenty of room for all sorts of goodies. The possibilities for creative combinations are endless, typically involving cheeses, vegetables, and nuts.
However, the tried and true traditional recipe calls for a filling made of ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano, and spinach, and tosses the cooked pasta in sage-infused butter.
➤ Where to try it: Osteria Le Sette Chiese (Via Borgonuovo, 6)
Cappellacci di Zucca
This pumpkin filled pasta is one of my all-time favorites, striking the perfect balance between sweet and savory. A traditional dish from Ferrara, it is often served in a rich ragù, but if you really want to appreciate the pumpkin flavor I recommend tossing it in sage butter instead.
Please note: supermarkets sometimes offer a cheap imitation of this pasta, but this means it can contain an overwhelming amount of crushed almond cookie (amaretti). As is the case with tortellini, this is one of those times when it’s worth spending a bit extra for the authentic handmade version.
➤ Where to try it: Mercato di Mezzo (Via Clavature, 12)
Lasagne alla Bolognese
Authentic Lasagne alla Bolognese has only four components: pasta that has been tinted green with pureed spinach, Ragù Bolognese, Béchamel sauce, and grated Parmigiano Reggiano. No mozzarella, no layers of ham, no ricotta. This is one of the foods that Bologna is most known for, and understandably so
Lasagne should never be cut straight out of the oven, or all the gooey layers will ooze out into the pan instead of into your mouth where they belong. Once it has rested enough that it is no longer piping hot and the fillings have firmed up a bit, then it can be cut and served. The best indicator of a perfectly cooked lasagna is that you can cut cleanly through the layers with just your fork. No need to saw away at it with a knife.
➤ Where to try it: Va Mo Là (Via delle Moline, 3)
Tagliatelle al ragù
This is a long flat pasta tossed with Ragù Bolognese. The name Tagliatelle comes from the word Italian word “tagliare” which means “to cut” because the pasta is created by rolling up a large sheet of dough and then slicing it into ribbons (no pasta machine required). In theory, this makes it one of the easier handmade pastas, but I can personally assure you that it still requires a practiced hand if you want to avoid a lumpy mess.
➤ Where to try it: Sfoglia Rina (Via Castiglione, 5/b)
Once upon a time, this sparkling wine was sold in red soda cans so it could be enjoyed on the go. The red cans were so ubiquitous during world war two that American soldiers started referring to it as “Italian Coca Cola”. Though it is no longer sold in cans, it has never stopped being a favorite and is available in a sweet “amabile” version as well as a dry “secco” version. It’s deep red color and robust flavor make it a perfect match for meat dishes, such as Tagliatelle al ragù.
This is a white wine with a pleasantly fruity aroma. It is available as a still wine, but its sparkling version is particularly popular when enjoying a gnocco fritto with assorted meats and cheeses. This is also an excellent alternative for those who find Prosecco’s dryness a bit overpowering.
If you order a house red (rosso di casa) while dining out in Bologna, it’s almost guaranteed that it will be a Sangiovese. This strong red wine has a full dry flavor that can hold its own when paired with Bologna’s rich cuisine.
➤ Where to try them: These wines are a standard part of nearly every menu in Bologna, but if you want a chance to focus exclusively on wine, Osteria del Sole (Vicolo Ranocchi, 1) sells all of these and more by the glass at prices that simply can’t be beat. They also have excellent examples of Lambrusco and Pignoletto that are produced exclusively for them.
Coffee is by no means unique to Bologna, you might have already had traditional coffee in Rome, Florence, or wherever else you’ve been in Italy. However, a list of local cultural beverages isn’t complete without at least a small crash course on Italian coffee. Despite its reputation, Italian espresso is not nearly as strong as you might think.
The heat and pressure required to achieve such concentrated flavor actually destroy approximately two-thirds of the caffeine, making it about as strong as a few sips of tea. This is why you will see Italians tossing back shots of coffee all day and even late into the evening. The great thing about this is you can pretty much enjoy as many Italian coffees as you want without having to worry about your brain vibrating in your skull.
Coffee at the Bar
When ordering at an Italian coffee bar, the first thing you should know is that there is no need to specify that you want an espresso. For Italians, simply saying “caffè” already implies that you want an espresso and saying “caffè espresso” is just redundant.
When you receive your caffè, it will usually be joined by a small glass of water as well. Many people (Italians included!) make the mistake of assuming this is for rinsing the coffee flavor from your mouth after you’re done drinking. It is actually there so you can cleanse your mouth BEFORE the coffee, to fully enjoy the rich flavor.
Another tip to make you look like a local: Italians typically reserve milky coffees (such as the cappuccino) for the morning. If you still want a drop of milk in your afternoon coffee, you can ask for a “caffè macchiato”.
➤ Where to try it: Caffè Pasticceria Gamberini (Via Ugo Bassi, 12/R)
Coffee at Home
Italians love enjoying a well-made espresso at the bar, but most of their coffee is made at home and they certainly don’t all have professional espresso machines. Instead, they use their trusty “Moka”: a pressurized coffee pot that is heated on the stove. You need a practiced hand and a well-seasoned pot to get a proper cup of espresso out of it, but even then it still has a distinct flavor that sets it apart from any coffee you can get at the bar.
➤ Where to try it: if you order a caffè after your meal at Sfoglia Rina (Via Castiglione, 5/b), they will bring you a single-serving Moka pot with a couple of cookies and sugar cubes on the side.
This dark brown liqueur is infused with walnuts and a touch of spice. The nutty flavor comes through surprisingly well for such a strong spirit and has just enough sweetness to make it the perfect after-dinner drink. Though its origins are traced to Great Britain, Italians have come to associate it with the hilly regions between Bologna and Modena.
In 1820, a Frenchman by the name of Jean Bouton made a new home for himself in Bologna. He soon discovered the excellent quality of Emilia-Romagna grapes and ended up creating Italy’s very first brandy. These days, its bulbous triangle-shaped bottle can still be found on the shelves of every bar and restaurant in Bologna.
After a big meal, Italians will usually attempt to head off the inevitable carb-coma with a coffee. This is then often followed by an “ammazza caffè” or “coffee-killer” to further aid in digestion, and in Bologna that means Amaro Montenegro.
This herbal liqueur strikes a delicate balance between bitter and sweet, produced from a recipe that has remained unchanged since 1885 and contains 40 different ingredients.
What about Beer?
As part of Europe’s “Wine Belt”, Italians have historically tended to put more wine on the table than beer. This has started to change over the past few years, but beer culture in Italy is still a relatively recent development. That being said, it is generally accepted that pizza is better with beer instead of wine, and any Pizzeria will have at least a couple of Italy’s major brands available (Nastro Azzuro, Moretti, Peroni, and Angelo Poretti)
If you’re wondering what to eat in Bologna when it comes to dessert, you can start from a plate of Zuppa Inglese. This is definitely one of the more colorful desserts you can order in Bologna. Rich yellow custard is combined with sponge cake that has been stained bright pink with Alchermes liqueur, the sweetness of which is tempered by a decadent layer of chocolate custard.
The origin of this dessert is disputed, but one legend insists that it was invented by cooks in Ferrara when a diplomate returning from London asked them to recreate the delicious trifle he had enjoyed while abroad. This version of events at least explains the name, which translates to “English Soup”.
A dense chocolate cake from Ferrara, the Tenerina is characterized by a flaky top crust that gives it a misleading impression of dryness, hiding its surprisingly soft and creamy interior. It is often paired with mascarpone or whipped cream and goes great with an after-dinner coffee.
➤ Where to try it: Va Mo Là (Via delle Moline, 3)
These cookies consist of a shortcrust-like dough folded into a half-moon and filled with “mostarda Bolognese” (a traditional preserve made from several different kinds of fruit). Originally, they were made just once a year in celebration of Saint Joseph’s Day on March 19, which is also Father’s Day in Italy. Luckily, the Bolognese came to their senses and realized something this yummy couldn’t be limited to a single day, and so they are now produced all year.
Fruits and Vegetables
Globalization and modern technology have made it possible to eat whatever you want whenever you want. However, there’s no denying that seasonal fruits and vegetables taste much better in their natural habitat.
For Bologna, that means apples, pears, and stone fruits such as the famous Vignola cherries. If vegetables are more your thing, Asparagus and Potatoes do particularly well in the Bolognese soil.
Italian Balsamic Vinegar is a category unto itself. Part wine, part dessert, and part condiment, it defies everything you thought you knew about vinegar. Truly authentic Aceto Balsamico can only be produced in either Modena or Reggio Emilia, each with its own standardized bottle shape. A syrupy grape reduction called “mosto cotto” is aged for at least 12 years in progressively smaller wooden barrels as the liquid evaporates over time. The longer it ages, the denser and sweeter the syrup becomes until finally it transforms into a delicious treat that can be sipped from a spoon all by itself.
It is, of course, delicious on salads, but you haven’t truly appreciated the diversity of this black gold until you’ve tried it with fruit (such as strawberries), drizzled over Parmigiano Reggiano, or even mixed into ice cream!
➤ Where to try it: Balsamic vinegar on ice cream might sound crazy, but “Gelato mantecato all’aceto balsamico di Modena” is a specialty at Da Sandro al Navile (Via del Sostegno, 15) and hand-mixed at the table. Just be sure to reserve it ahead of time so the poor waiter has a chance to warm up his mixing muscles.
What about pizza?
Pizza is truly one of Italy’s greatest contributions to humankind. However, Bologna has traditionally been more focused on pasta and doesn’t really have its own distinct pizza culture. If you are looking for an authentic Italian pizza though, you will still find plenty of pizzerias in town that offer excellent examples of Roman, Naples, and Sicilian style pizza.
This list is obviously just the briefest of introductions to Bolognese cuisine and to the best food in Bologna, Italy. However, it’s more than enough to get you started on your next culinary adventure. Most Italians love any opportunity to talk about food, so all you need to do is mention any of the dishes listed in this article and they will happily suggest their own local favorites. Buon appetito!